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On the frontlines, treating Rohingya refugees.

by Stefanie Glinski | Oct 09, 2017

Hassan was one of the first patients to arrive at Kutupalong camp’s only diarrhea clinic. Clutching on to his mother’s arm, the three-year-old slipped in and out of consciousness, sweat dripping from his little exhausted body.

An ethnic Rohingya, Hassan recently came to Bangladesh, fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar. More than half a million refugees arrived alongside him in recent weeks, making it the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Many witnessed their houses being burned to the ground and family members shot.

nurse-volunteer-helping-refugee
A medical volunteer treats a child in the refugee settlement in Bangladesh.

Conditions in the camp are dire and a large-scale cholera outbreak is feared. Most of the new arrivals live in simple housing, made from bamboo sticks and plastic sheets that have been donated to them. They wade barefoot through thick mud; in areas where open defecation is practiced, this is a breeding ground for the water-borne cholera.  

But with over 4,790 confirmed cases of diarrhea, there is so far only one management center for the disease, operated by Medical Teams International.

Fact: One child dies every minute from diarrhea. With the proper resources, these illnesses are preventable and treatable.

Hassan had been sick for a few days, his parents said, initially afraid to seek medical help. Their son is now being treated at Medical Teams' in-patient unit.

“The development of epidemics such as measles and cholera in refugee camps is our biggest fear. Acute diarrhea is a leading cause of death in children under five years old,” says Bruce Murray, a Medical Teams International doctor.

“We are particularly concerned with the potential development of cholera. That’s why we scaled up quickly: we need the facilities for when it occurs, and we want to be in the frontlines of responding to this dangerous epidemic,” he added.

wading-mud-rohingya-refugee
Muddy conditions in the settlement greatly increase the risk of outbreaks.

Medical Teams International’s diarrhea management center is located in the heart of the Rohingya refugee camp, staffed with doctors and nurses ready to treat a potential outbreak.

The facilities were a simple storehouse just a few days ago, but the international team has turned it into a fully operational in-patient center, with freshly painted floors, walls and ceiling fans.

“We all worked together to set this up in just two days and we are already seeing patients. The turn-around has been quick, but it had to be. The facilities are important and life-saving,” explains Nurse Theresa Durkin. She arrived in Bangladesh as a volunteer only a few days ago and is already training local medical staff at the center. While some patients arrive for a quick treatment and dose of rehydration salts, others, like Hassan, are admitted to the in-patient unit, requiring longer-term specialized care.

Outside the clinic, Kutupalong camp is hustling and bustling. Between the already existing houses, new arrivals have set up their tents, waiting to officially register in the camps. Most people have arrived solely with the clothes on their bodies. They often wait in line for hours to receive food distributions for their families.

“There is a lot of need here. I’m glad we’re on the ground to respond."

“I came here less than a month ago,” says Mehda, a young mother, holding her son Mohammed on her lap. “My house was burned and I lost my husband. I came here feeling desperate and sad. I know that living here will be very difficult, but I am glad I am receiving help, I don’t know how I would survive otherwise,” she added. Playing with her little son, she says that she was referred to the diarrhea management center by health workers in the community.  

“In a sudden-onset response like this, we often work together with partners on the ground. In our case, we have partnered both with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as well as with a local non-profit who helps provide doctors and nurses on the ground,” explains Medical Team International’s Team Leader Dominic Bowen.

“We also have community health workers in the camps, referring new patients to us,” he adds.

Kutupalong camp is still growing. The government of Bangladesh has just donated more land to expand the existing camp.

“There is a lot of need here. I’m glad we’re on the ground to respond,” Murray says.